The church, led by both Catholic and Episcopal clergy, must begin having Catholics and non-Catholics meet in separate rooms to observe Holy Communion

By Jeff Sheler
The Virginian-Pilot

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond has told the nation’s only blended Catholic and Episcopal parish that it must change its worship services so that Catholics and non-Catholics meet in separate rooms for Holy Communion.

The parish, Church of the Holy Apostles, has been led by Catholic and Episcopal co-pastors for more than 30 years. Parishioners say it’s an arrangement that has allowed families in mixed marriages to worship together and has helped build bonds that transcend denominational boundaries.

In an emotionally charged meeting Monday with parish leaders, representatives of the Catholic diocese voiced support for the ecumenical congregation, said the Rev. Michael Ferguson, the parish’s Episcopal pastor.

But the officials made it clear the current worship practice – using a combined liturgy in which the priests move to separate altars in the same room to say the Eucharistic prayers – was unacceptable, Ferguson said.

They instructed the parish to come up with a plan that provides for separate liturgies in separate rooms, Ferguson said.

“What was left in our laps was to develop a way to be together in those parts of the service where it would be acceptable to the diocese for us to be together, and then to separate… without making it disjointed,” Ferguson said.

Once a plan is developed, Ferguson said, it will need approval of Catholic Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo and Bishop Herman Hollerith of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia.

Ferguson said he is confident an acceptable arrangement can be worked out.

“It could have been much worse,” he said.

Michael Cherwa, president of the parish vestry council and a Catholic, said council members were “surprised and saddened” by the diocesan officials’ presentation during the two-hour meeting.

“They told us what we are doing is not in compliance with the Roman Catholic Church, that there are some things we need to change,” Cherwa said.

He said they were told it was a message handed down from Rome.

“That came as news to us. It’s been such a joy for families to come together from different sides and celebrate together. To be told we’ve been doing something wrong, it was a shock and a disappointment.”

Yet from the beginning, the ecumenical arrangement raised eyebrows in the church hierarchy. While it was not unusual for Catholic parishes to share facilities with other denominations, a combined parish using a shared liturgy was unheard-of.

Retired Bishop Walter Sullivan, who helped launch the parish and participated in a recent 35th anniversary service, had encouraged local church leaders to keep a low profile, parish leaders said.

“Whenever I have visited, I’ve found the services distracting,” said Stephen Neill, a spokesman for the Richmond diocese and editor of its newspaper. “It was like going to a movie that has two different endings, or having two people talking to you at once.”

He offered no explanation as to why this objection was raised now.

Ferguson said many parishioners at the church on Lynnhaven Parkway are still upset by DiLorenzo’s removal earlier this month of the parish’s Catholic co-pastor, the Rev. James E. Parke.

DiLorenzo gave no reason for Parke’s dismissal, which was communicated in a letter to the parish on Nov. 2. Parke has not been reassigned.

Cherwa said no additional explanation was offered at the meeting.

The diocese has temporarily installed as interim priest Monsignor Raymond Barton, who was the parish’s Catholic co-pastor at its beginning in 1977.

Ferguson said he planned to give a detailed report of the meeting to parishioners during Sunday’s service.

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